A Response to Frank Bruni by Director of College Counseling Kate Ramsdell
On March 13, just before many colleges released regular decision news, The New York Times ran an Op-Ed piece by Frank Bruni entitled, “How to Survive the College Admission Madness.” It made quick rounds in the college counseling world. Colleagues and parents forwarded the link to me, commenting: “This is so refreshing!” or “Nothing new, but the kind of piece you wish parents might take a minute to read.” Truthfully, columns on the college process written by high-profile journalists, who also happen to have published recently a book on the topic of college admission, can send shivers of cynicism up my spine. Yet, Bruni’s insight, while not entirely new, is worth a read.
At the outset, Bruni tells the story of two students, Peter and Jenna, who did not get into a “top choice,” ending up instead at the University of Indiana-Bloomington and Scripps College, respectively (editorial comment: two excellent institutions). Eventually, the Hoosier lands at Harvard Business School right next to a high school classmate who’d attended Yale. The Scripps grad goes on to gain a coveted spot at Teach for America before heading up a charter school. They both admit to being pleased with their ultimate career outcomes and attribute some of their resilience and success to their ‘default’ college paths. Bruni admits that these students’ stories are “not extraordinary.” Happiness and success, he argues, come under different guises at different points in people’s lives. He also notes, “Rejection was fleeting — and survivable.” Yes, and those profiled also had the benefits of many years of excellent education behind them (as Bruni shares in the article) and the privilege of being able to afford college.
It is worth noting that Bruni interviews Jenna and Peter when they are 26 and 28 years-old – with reasonable distance from a process that can, in the moments when decisions arrive, deliver a blow not only to one’s self-esteem but also, seemingly, to any future plans of success and good fortune one night have imagined for him or herself. His interviews are not unlike conversations I have had with Nobles graduates who may not have grabbed their self-defined “brass ring” in the college process, at least in senior year terms. Most will share, with the benefit of experience and hindsight, that their “not top choice” college turned out to be a fantastic home – filled with smart, fun and interesting people – and a great launching pad to adulthood.
I do take issue with Bruni’s offering that the executives at the top 10 Fortune 500 Companies went to the following institutions and that’s somehow supposed to make college outcomes for 17 year-olds in 2015 easier to swallow: the University of Arkansas; the University of Texas; the University of California, Davis; the University of Nebraska; Auburn; Texas A & M; the General Motors Institute; the University of Kansas; the University of Missouri, St. Louis; and Dartmouth College. For, as we well know, more than the “brand” of one’s college degree goes into one’s trajectory to this type of position, and times are changing: at the top 5 of these companies, the men at the helm were born between 1930 and 1966.
What I, perhaps, appreciated most about Bruni’s essay is that he acknowledges some of the demographic complexities we watch play out over the college admission process in a Nobles community that is increasingly diverse. He points out that for most Americans it’s not a question of “What great college can I get into?” or even “What institution will I attend?” but, “Where can I afford to go to college?” This is a key caveat to an argument otherwise pitched at an exceedingly small slice of the American population.
In sum, Bruni’s main points are hard to disagree with: many people place too much emphasis on gaining admission to one of a handful of the most selective colleges when there are many excellent institutions of higher learning in this country; parents would do well to support, love and nurture their children unconditionally; and college outcomes do determine something for those of us who have the chance to go to college. Whether that something is surviving rejection, making us bolder risk takers, opening our eyes and minds to new experiences, getting us to high-paying or otherwise fulfilling jobs, becoming people who make the world a better place or perhaps even introducing us to a future spouse, there is a lot to look forward to beyond the four years after Nobles, and that remains true whether you grab the brass ring this time or not.